How important are the Arts?

I am fortunate to be traveling through portions of Europe that were not too long ago lifted from the veil of the Soviet Union’s gray and dull veneer. The experience is not only illuminating for the normal reasons that travel is mind-expanding, but because I am in a place with a thousand year tradition and commitment to the arts—music is everywhere and consistently good.Last night I marveled at a musician who plays music on glasses that are filled to different levels of water and thus, when touched in such a way can play beautiful melodies and create amazing sounds. Arts, the theatre, and architecture simply soar from place to place and one extraordinary edifice to another. This is the legacy of Prague—a place that has bounced back-and-forth through history under control of one conqueror or another. In just the past hundred years or so there was the overthrow of the Hapsburg Empire, the uniting of geographies to create an unnatural country; Nazi occupation during World War ll; the Soviet occupation for over 40 years and then independence a mere twenty years ago and a poet named Havel becoming its President.  

And all the while, these people have maintained a commitment to the arts–through war and repression they have persisted. Even the dreary and weary vagaries of Soviet domination have been unable to extinguish the love of song and the joy of creating that is clearly a hallmark of this country.

There is clearly a lesson here for us in California that we cannot and should not sacrifice the arts for austerity. We have all but removed them from our schools and have made it difficult for our children to experience music and theater and art because they are the first things to be sacrificed when budgets get tight. Without exposure to creativity, the mind does not develop to its full potential. And how sad, short-sighted and reckless it is to remove these opportunities from our youth—many of whom will never know their potential to play an instrument, write a symphony, build a building or paint a masterpiece and yet who might very well be the next Yo Yo Ma, Mozart, Frank Lloyd Wright or Picasso.
While there is no doubt we need to teach the basic skills to our children, we need to remind ourselves that exposing our children to the arts, music, literature are as basic and fundamental to their education as anything else we put before them. It is through the arts that we appreciate the spiritual (consider the amazing churches and temples of religions throughout the world), the up-lifting quality of Beethoven’s 9th, etc. etc. Without giving our children the chance and choice to pursue these life experiences, we deny them what others know so well as the glue that holds a society and its culture together. Let’s hold tight to what others have known for thousands of years: that we must encourage and pass strong traditions of music and the arts to our children and their children that reflect our nation’s vibrancy and limitless spirit.